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GOP Presidential Candidates’ Stories Reveal the Depths of Their Positions at the Thanksgiving Family Forum (For more Government content, go here.)

by Susan Leem, associate producer

“You guys are in a church, and that is not by accident.”
~Bob Vander Plaats

There’s something that “opens everything up,” as Paul Raushenbush said on our program, when you ask a person about their religious or spiritual tradition. Asking such an intimate question conveys a sense of respect. And to be asked may be somewhat disarming; it tells the person that you’re interested in not only his or her worldview, but what makes that person who he or she is. More importantly, it communicates that you’re ready to sit and are willing to listen to a thoughtful, complex, nuanced response. That’s something we don’t expect or demand enough in our national political races.

The Thanksgiving Family Forum at First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa gave six GOP presidential candidates that chance. Absent were the gotcha questions that left Rick Perry fumbling to remember the government agency he wanted to eliminate and prompted Herman Cain’s Libya flub. Instead, personal storytelling and exploration of formative experiences fueled this faith-focused conversation.

Moderator Frank Luntz, a pollster for FOX News, began the two-hour conversation by laying out his intentions in his introduction, “I want you to understand what’s in these people’s hearts, not just the soundbites” and “understand their worldview so that you will know what to do come January 3rd.” His style of questioning gave the candidates an opportunity to flesh out their ideas and explain their moral positions in the context of their Christian traditions.

There were plenty of unscripted, dare I say sometimes moving, moments too. Luntz asked several valuable questions to draw out the candidates’ character: to describe a personal failing that would inform their work as president, to share an experience that helped shape their faith and spirituality. A choked-up Herman Cain relayed a story about facing his mortality upon being diagnosed with cancer. Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann describes the pain of her parents’ divorce while she was a teen. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum confessed to seeing his daughter who suffers from Trisomy 18 as less of a person, and trying not to love her to avoid the pain of losing her during her medical crises as an infant. Rick Perry confesses that Jesus filled a hole in his soul.

An even though Luntz, in an artful move, invites Occupy Wall Street protestors to address the audience before the roundtable discussion, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did not extend a hand across the aisle of the culture wars in America with his attack on Occupy Wall Street protestors and specifically secularism, “…(secularism) has dominated our academic world, our academic world supplies our news media, our courts, and Hollywood, so you have a faction of America today who believes things are profoundly wrong…they are determined to destroy our value system.”

The event was hosted by The Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization based in Iowa, and co-sponsored by Focus on the Family-affiliate CitizenLink and the National Organization for Marriage. Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, said in introductory remarks, “We don’t the church to be political…we don’t need you to be Republican or Democrat, but we need you to be biblical.” His effort to make religiosity non-partisan was later overshadowed by his comment that the next President of the United States will come from the Republicans present at the debate that night.

The civil nature of the discussion was the real standout of the evening, and how that tone was created and sustained is worth pondering. Was it the way Luntz established the ground rules for the discussion? Without overtly saying so, he somehow made it clear that the “winner” of the night would not be the candidate who outdid or shamed the others, but the one who emerged from the discussion with the most integrity.